As a child, Witches vocalist Troy Gregory always dreaded Nov. 1. That was the fateful day all the Halloween decorations had to come down and face storage in the darkest corner of the basement in his family’s two-level Warren colonial.This explains a lot.
It explains his current apartment kept lit by strings of orange lights, candles and a glowing plastic RIP tombstone — year-round. It explains his band’s moniker. And it explains the “All Hallow’s Eve” date for the Witches’ Universal Mall CD release show at the Magic Stick.
The album itself (the band’s third) feels quite dark and foreboding. It echoes like a witch’s cackle and leaves you with that exhilarated yet shaky sensation, like after you get off a monster roller coaster or after you nearly have a traffic accident — that “Phew, I’m still alive” feeling. The band reminisced before a practice at guitarist John Nash’s house on the weeklong recording-mixing-mastering marathon.
“We were going home every night fatigued, but we couldn’t sleep,” Gregory says. “It was nice to feel alive.” Recording during one of the hottest weeks of the summer in Jim Diamond’s Ghetto Recorders studio, Gregory describes the experience as spontaneous reaction as opposed to rehearsed perfection, a sort of “don’t look back” philosophy.
“We were hot and tired, Matt’s (Hatch, the bassist) hand hurt. And we got that on there, we got an aching hand and aching minds and sweat on (the recording). It’s human.”
The Witches have gone through several lineup changes, but the sound has always been big. Lately, big means a little out of control, a little reverb and lots of people.
Universal Mall is the first release recorded by the current lineup, which includes Gregory, Nash on guitar, Bill Peterson on second guitar (who will be playing his last show with the Witches Oct. 31), Corey Martin on drums, Hatch on bass and Diamond on 12-string guitar. In one of its earlier formations, the band had 10 people. There were five guitarists in that lineup and a few had to sit in the audience and play during a show at Zoots. During the recording for Universal Mall, a few musicians from the area stepped into the studio to help out. Bill Brovold of Larval offered some pedal steel playing to one track.
“We were just running through the song and that’s the version we kept. It’s like a Polaroid. We captured that moment,” shares Gregory.
Other guests included Amanda Porter, Abbey Taylor and Todd Gregory, some performing string arrangements, organ or backup vocals. The Witches are known for their “full-stage” ’60s-style wall of sound. They offer a live energy like no other, leading to a claustrophobic, drunk, psyche-rock hum on top of melodies that are low on gimmick and high on innovation.
“Winter’s coming up and, to get around, you have to get in your car,” Gregory says. “Is your car working? Is it safe to drive? Is it sliding everywhere in the slush? Perhaps something positive comes through the isolation. It makes people negotiate the terms of their existence among the people they see on a regular basis, (getting their opinions) rather than reading Billboard to see where we should take our music.
“How do you do that when you’ve been digging your car out of slush all day? You go and make a song like Limp Bizkit or Christina Aguilera? This is your life. You’re the one with the aching back. Doesn’t your song mean anything?”
The Universal Mall reference stems from Gregory’s childhood. His mother would take him there to see movies when he was young. Years later, he’d go to the head shops to stare at rock posters. The mural on the side wall mesmerizes him even still. It was part of his growing up and it resembles a crumbling majestic place to him, a once vibrant marketplace of people, and yet at the same time, a symbol of conformity and the city’s fears and attitudes, the unwritten rules.
Gregory’s life itself can be an inspiration to other musicians based locally. His résumé reads like a copy of Rolling Stone. He played with the Swans, Prong, Flotsam and Jetsam, the Dirtbombs and was even asked to join Metallica back in 1987. The Witches are his home, however, because of the people involved. The first lineup included some of his childhood friends. The new one includes Martin and Hatch, who were fans of the Witches for years before joining and who bring additional intensity to the band, perhaps because of their personalities, perhaps because of their history, having played with the Wildbunch and the GO, respectively.
Detroit-based comedian Corey Hall is hosting the night of the CD release and Detroit-based artist Glenn Barr did the artwork in the CD booklet. It’s a mural of a cellar that references each track, from “We Got Rats” to “Robot Family.”
At the Magic Stick, prizes will be given to best and worst costume, and the band will give out ear candy — “used, used, used” copies of some rare albums. Perhaps one of them is the album Gregory used to cover up the bright light emanating from the turntable so he wouldn’t get in trouble when he stayed up late and listened to records as a kid.
Just remember to have your parents check your prize for razor blades before digging in. Trick or treat!
Melissa Giannini is the Metro Times music writer. E-mail her at [email protected]